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City does away with ambulance household tax

If you paid your water bill recently, you might have noticed you didn't have to dig quite as deeply into your pocket.

That's is because the City of Sunnyside has discontinued a $3 fee to help pay for the community's ambulance service.

Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell said the city decided to discontinue the ambulance household tax, which was being billed monthly as part of residents' water bills because of a state Supreme Court ruling that occurred against the City of Kennewick. The ruling involved an apartment owner who challenged the city's right to implement the fee. The Supreme Court ruled that the ambulance tax Kennewick had was unconstitutional, resulting in the city repealing the tax.

"Wisdom said we should stop since ours was adopted under the same framework," said Stockwell.

Several cities have the ambulance tax, said Stockwell. He said that the state legislature allowed cities to put such a measure before voters. Sunnyside has had the ambulance tax since October 1989. The money from the tax generates about $140,000 per year. The money is used to help subsidize city ambulance service.

"It goes towards all kinds of expenses," said Stockwell.

Right now, Stockwell is busy looking at ways to address the Supreme Court's ruling. Stockwell said the ruling provided some guidance for cities, but no one is really sure why the state high court banned the tax. Stockwell said usually it is easy to figure out the direction the Supreme Court wants to take on the ruling it hands down.

"This is one where I just don't get it," said Stockwell. "Everybody is just kind of scratching their heads."

Stockwell is expecting to have a recommendation before Council on how to address the issue within the next three weeks.

To make up for the shortfall in revenue from the tax, which is between $7-9,000 per month, Stockwell said the city will turn to a reserve fund within the fire department budget if needed. The reserve is rather healthy at about $250,000, but Stockwell said that money can't be tapped for long because it is used to help purchase such items as ambulances and other needed equipment.

Stockwell said it is important for the city to address this loss of tax revenue. The city already subsidizes the ambulance service, said Stockwell, and can't really afford to provide much more. Later in the year, Stockwell said the issue of how to operate the ambulance service will come before Council, but right now he is trying to figure out a way to address the loss of revenue from suspending the utility tax. Stockwell, though, wants to assure residents that they will continue to have a quality, uninterrupted ambulance service.

"The ambulance service will continue as it has," said Stockwell. "We need to fix this (revenue problem). It is a service that has to be available."

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